US judge grants 'human rights' to a pair of laboratory chimpanzees being held at biomedical research facility in landmark case

Affording Hercules and Leo the status of legal 'persons' means that the Long Island university where they are being held must now prove the legality of their imprisonment

A New York judge has issued a writ of habeas corpus in a case involving two chimpanzees being held at a biomedical research facility, a decision that animal rights activists have hailed as the first time chimps have been afforded the status of legal “persons”.

Habeas corpus, which governs against unlawful detention, has before now been applied only to humans.

The two chimpanzees in question, Hercules and Leo, currently reside at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where they have reportedly been used by scientists studying the evolution of human bipedalism. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the animal rights group, first filed a lawsuit on their behalf in 2013, demanding they be relocated to a sanctuary in Florida.

The case was dismissed by a county court, but the NhRP has continued to appeal, and on Monday Judge Barbara Jaffe – of the New York state Supreme Court – granted the group its first significant legal victory, issuing the habeas corpus writ and summoning Stony Brook’s lawyers to appear at a hearing to argue for the chimps’ continued detention. Habeas corpus requires the authorities – in this case, the university – to prove the legality of a person’s imprisonment.

 

Depending on the outcome of that hearing, set for 6 May, the ruling could result in the chimps being freed, offering the possibility of release to countless other research animals. The NhRP, which says it intends to use the decision as a precedent, purports to be “the only organisation working toward actual legal rights for members of species other than our own”.

The NhRP’s mission, according to its website, is “to change the common law status of at least some non-human animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’.” In its original legal brief on the case, the organisation explained: “Person is not a synonym for ‘human being’, but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights.”

The group argues that New York state has previously expanded the definition of legal personhood to include, for example, corporations or pets named in their owners’ wills. Hercules and Leo’s case began as one of several lawsuits filed by the NhRP in December 2013, on behalf of the Stony Brook primates, as well as two other chimps being held privately, Kiko and Tommy. Tommy is a 26-year-old former circus performer who lives on a trailer park in upstate New York.

The NhRP characterises the lawsuits not as animal welfare cases, but as animal rights cases. The chimps’ owners are not accused of any abuse, but the campaign group argues that the animals are too intelligent and emotionally complex to be held in captivity, and should instead be transferred to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida. The sanctuary, composed of 13 artificial islands on a lake, is home to about 250 chimpanzees and is, according to the NhRP, “an environment as close to that of their natural home in Africa as can be found in North America”.

The group has said it intends to fight similar legal battles on behalf of other intelligent animals including elephants, dolphins, orcas and other great apes. “This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” Natalie Prosin, executive director of the NhRP, told Science magazine. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”

Yet some legal experts warn that the implications of Judge Jaffe’s ruling should not be overstated. Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in California, who opposes personhood for animals, told the magazine, “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth.

“It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”

UPDATE: The court order issued in the case regarding two chimpanzees was in fact amended, and the words “writ of habeas corpus” removed. While a hearing will still be held on whether the chimps, Hercules and Leo, should remain at a research facility at Stony Brook University in New York, this means the court has so far made no decision on whether they ought to be treated as legal “persons”. The hearing has been moved from 6 May to 27 May.

The NhRP said in a statement, “This case is one of a trio of cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought in an attempt to free chimpanzees imprisoned within the State of New York through an ‘Article 70-Habeas Corpus’ proceeding.  These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued. We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing.”

A spokesperson for Stony Brook said in an email, “The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter.”

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